Enjoy the Silence: Triduum, sexual abuse, and the disappearance of the crucified

Enjoy the Silence: Triduum, sexual abuse, and the disappearance of the crucified March 30, 2010

“Words are very unnecessary / They can only do harm
Enjoy the silence”

(Depeche Mode)

German political theologian Fr. Johann Baptist Metz famously wrote on many occasions that the challenge for theologians in the second half of the twentieth century would be to learn how to write theology that places the world’s victims at the center of its reflection. In particular, Metz insisted that theologians could no longer do their work with their backs turned to Auschwitz. In his most recent book, Catholic theologian Tom Beaudoin echoes Metz, writing that today we cannot do theology with our backs turned to the victims of sexually abusive priests. (His reflections on the latest round of abuse reports can be seen here or here.)

But this is, I fear, precisely what is likely to happen in most Roman Catholic parishes during Holy Week. Given the tendency toward apolitical and irrelevant homilies that have become standard in our communities, I have my doubts that many Good Friday homilies will make reference to the crucifixions experienced by victims of sexually abusive clergy. A friend of mine, and a doctoral student in theology herself, remarked to me that the Pope’s silence in the face of cover-up accusations could be due to the view that Holy Week is perhaps not an appropriate time to discuss such things. I suggested in return that if in Holy Week we focus our attention on the suffering of Christ, then acknowledging the Christ that suffers in the victims seems entirely fitting this week. More than fitting. Necessary. But sadly, if we are to get any reference to the scandal at all, it is likely to be the sort of thing Archbishop Timothy Dolan’s flock received at Mass this past Passion/Palm Sunday when he insisted that it is Pope Benedict who has been “crucified”.

In such a context of silence, denial, defensiveness, and submissiveness, what would a Triduum celebration even mean if not the willful liturgical obscuring of the continued crucifixion of Christ today? The Catholic mystical tradition has consistently insisted that Christ suffers today in his body. But as Salvadoran liberation theologian Jon Sobrino presses us, “it would be idle to say that Christ crucified has a body in history and not identify it in some way. […] From the viewpoint of christology we must ask what this body is.”

It is truly difficult to hear the continued reports of children raped by priests and not be struck by the presence of the Crucified One there. But this presence is denied — “I do not know the man!” — each and every time church leaders and members alike remain silent or utter words of defensiveness that embarrassingly fill nearly every news story or ecclesial statement covering the abuse.

Is a Triduum that intentionally turns its back on the suffering body of Christ in such a way worth celebrating? No doubt, we will hear once again the church’s language of “entering into the sufferings of Christ” as we do each and every year. But when will we learn that such pieties are at best meaningless or at worst utterly destructive if we are unwilling as a church to identify — and to identify with — Christ’s suffering body today? We cannot enter into Christ’s sufferings without entering those of his body. Indeed, the only way to enter into Christ’s sufferings is through the sufferings of others.

If we do not — if we cannot — do so, if we cannot, as Paul said, “discern the body” and we instead celebrate the holy mysteries without a recognition of the victims, we eat and drink condemnation on ourselves.

Archbishop Oscar Romero was conscious of the way the “crucified peoples” mediate the presence of the Crucified One. Despite his position of privilege, Romero saw the crucified people around him yet did not deny their presence, cover them up, or become defensive about the political and religious systems that produced them. Instead, he “incarnated” himself among the crucified and shone a light onto them insisting that they were the ones God loves the most. And he did this no matter how uncomfortable it would be and with no regard for the repercussions. We know the end of that story.

Despite Romero’s relevance as a true model for today’s episcopacy and today’s church, I fear that Romero too will be absent and unremembered over the course of this week’s liturgies. Although his life, death, and resurrection among his people mediates to us something of the Christ event, our backs, and the backs of our celebrants and homilists, will be turned to him as well.

Liturgy should always, though usually does not, draw us into the sufferings of others. During Holy Week, the celebration of the Lord’s passion and resurrection, this should be even more true. But as a life-long faithful participant in the church’s liturgical life, I am increasing frustrated by the fact that we literally have to work against the liturgy — as it is conducted by most celebrants and most communities anyway — in order for this to happen. The suffering of human persons at the hands of our social, political, and ecclesial systems is “disappeared,” removed even from our liturgies where our anamnetic words and actions suffer from the worst kind of spiritual myopia and, as Sobrino calls it, “christological deism.”

And from where I stand, just days away from these holiest of days, I anticipate only more silence in the face of the reality of the world’s suffering, especially that suffering directly caused by the church. And I am not sure I can take it this year.

"If I am only now scaring you, I need to bring my A game. :-)"

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  • digbydolben

    MM, it’s about time somebody at Vox Nova wrote on this subject. I agree with everything you’ve written, and, as a secondary teacher, I know that the most truly “disempowered” people on earth are children–even the children of the privileged have fewer “rights” and less power over their lives than do, for instance, the working poor.

    These perverted pastors fastened upon the weakest and the most vulnerable of God’s creatures as their prey.

    Benedict must resign and his successor should be chosen only by prelates with absolutely no connections to the cover-ups, and then the Church must reconsider the issue of “priestly celibacy” in light of the facts that healthy young Catholic menin the West–be they “heterosexual” or “homosexual” in preference–no longer agree with the Church’s traditional and characteristically UNHEALTHY attitudes toward human sexuality or the merely functional “natural law” (i.e. procreation-oriented) emphasis in marriage.

    Also, the question of empowerment of women in the Church, if not the reservation of the sacerdotal role for men only, must be better addressed (in the true spirit of the Second Vatican Council, rather than John Paul’s and Benedict’s rescindment of much of the
    Council’s direction). If you doubt it, ask yourself this question: “Do you honestly believe that so much pedophile abuse would have taken place in rectories, parish houses and monasteries, if women had been living on site, in some sort of community with the men who did the abusing?” Personally, I seriously doubt it. The life-styles of Catholic priests are inhuman, abnormal and, as we’ve seen, often morally degrading; those who aren’t sexually immature are often gluttonous, alcoholic or gossip-mongering.

  • grega

    Thank you digbydolben for your honest words.
    It can not be that pedophile Priests could serve communion while such communion is still denied to the divorced catholic women/men of a husband/wife who broke the marriage bond – such things do not make sense – yes and they do have consequences in terms of number of catholics.
    Bishops like to point out how terrible people are that they do not flock to the church in old numbers – perhaps it is time to return the favor and wonder why they failed to inspire.
    Benedict has no credibility left in the eyes of the average catholic family – time when one waits breathlessly for meaningful utterances from the very same folks who by default keep rewarding each other by cushy retirement in Roma aka Cardinal Law are very much over. I am not even shocked that such abuse took place – but please at very least take the occasion to seriously demonstrate the required change.
    Women as Priests and married clergy a must to regain trust of the believers.
    A culture of excellence has to replace the current affairs. As humans we fail – priests will fail – female or male priests will fail at times -bishops will fail – this is expected – but equally expected is a correct responds to such failures – scripture very much points out such failure of us humans ( those among you without …) the responds of the leadership to the failure is worse than the failure itself – this is the reason why somebody as part of this terrible culture of cover-ups for the sake of the ‘holy church’ as Benedict has no chance to survive this in the hearts of the majority of catholic. I doubt he will resign and fear that the same group of handpicked folks that did not have the guts to pick a true energetic Pope the last time around has it in them to change gears.
    A new church will be built from the ground up –
    actual believers will do so – parishes with weak priests will however not survive.
    In the past the community selected those as leaders that indeed could serve that function – in Germany most people where rather happy to see Ratzinger leave for Rome in 1982 – what does that say about a person.
    Perhaps JPII and Benedict succeeded to grasp power for the institutionalized Rome – at what cost however?

    • Grega

      While I respect much of what you say, I disagree with others. I don’t think “married priests” and “women as priests” are a solution because it fails to recognize that what is in the church is what is in society at large, and happens wherever there are married priests (and women clergy). Plus, I do not think ” a new church built from the ground up” is necessarily the best approach — newness doesn’t fix problems when the problems are human problems. On the other hand, I do think a restructuring of the church and how bishops are made is important. No more bishop-moving-around as a kind of promotion. A bishop should come from among those he leads, and I wouldn’t mind if the people themselves, when there is need for a new bishop, have a greater role in the choice. It doesn’t have to be a popularity contest, but I think something needs to happen — one can say the reason we don’t have a modern Ambrose is because the people don’t have a voice — and I think that would be correct. Nonetheless, with this, I think a re-affirmation of the equality of bishops will help — a reinforcement of the Eastern appeal of the bishop’s unity with their dioceses instead of just a vatican position is necessary. It won’t solve everything, but it will help get things better.

  • One of the things I see right now is the fruit of ultramontanism in the Church. The pope is the bishop of Rome. The bishop of Rome is the first among equals (first has a role of leadership when those words are used). The fact of the matter is, so many people, including the bishops themselves, have forgotten the “among equals.” It has created a greater system of irresponsibility. The bishops point to the pope, the pope to the bishops, when asked who is responsible. More importantly, bishops really do not seem to pastor their dioceses as much as they seem to manage their property these days. This second aspect is the fruit of capitalism, when money has to be managed for everything and every affair. I do think the bishops should turn the management of funds to more competent laity (and of course, being told what is going on), and then focus on the spiritual pastoring of their flock, acting like a bishop and not expecting everything to come out of the Vatican. They need to be more interactive, visiting their parishes; they need to take action; they need to be pro-active and not reactive.

    As for Pope Benedict. I think he was caught in the system as it had become. It doesn’t excuse him — but it also shows how this happened, and one can also understand how he got caught up in it. I don’t think he needs to step down, but I also don’t think the people who are acting like he is innocent of mistakes and just being persecuted because he is the pope, and popes are good people are doing anyone any good. Forgiveness Vespers should be, imo, instituted in the West starting next year. And its point should be something that every priest should be required to speak about every year. It would help keep things in perspective on all sides.

  • I have little sympathy with liberation theology, and I can concede somewhat that the press coverage of Benedict is a bit sensationalized. But then I too want to put the whole story of the Gospel context. I could just imagine the powerful in that situation, the Pharisees and Saducees of the time, offering a rejoiner to Our Lord when they are called, “a brood of vipers”:

    “You are just singling us out because we are rich and powerful, and sit on the chairs that judge all of Israel. Everybody else does what we do. It’s not fair that you dwell on our sins. How about the sins of everyone else!?”

    One reads in the lives of various saints that, that when they were accused of something that they didn’t do, they said nothing and accepted the guilt. One wonders 1. how truly innocent those who are now accused truly are and 2. why don’t they just apologize anyway, being that if they weren’t directly at fault, they were at least at the scene of the crime?

  • Ronald King

    Michael, Excellent insights. In my opinion, Benedict is pope because he fits into the system that has evolved into a passive superficial piety which strains to keep the passions of the human being hidden and repressed due to the transgenerational history of fear and condemnation associated with the harm that resulted from uninhibited expression of these same passions.
    Instead, the intellect has been used to create a theology of sin that is the foundation and starting point for understanding the passions. Those who fit best into this system have primitive defense mechanisms which enable this repression to take place at an early age in which the gifted child’s fearful reaction to the observation of harmful adult relationships protects him from the danger of these encounters. Benedict seems to be one of those highly sensitive gifted children who have a high intellect which protects him from the fear of the external and internal potential harm of those passions. Benedict is very introverted and internally driven by his passions towards the internal emotional reward of seeking the understanding of God. However, if he does not have an openness and right understanding of his passions then he projects a defensiveness and aloofness to those outside the known of his internal and external reality. His writing and his speaking will be inhibited and without passion due to the lifelong repression and compensation of his passions. Occasionally, his passion will leak out with something like God is Love. It will be short and it will reveal a glimpse of what lies below the surface waiting to be released and nurtured into a mature uninhibited expression of God’s Love which requires the absence of a filter and the absence of Canon Law for His Truth to be spoken and lived passionately. In other words, he would be more like Archbishop Romero who sadly I know only very superficially through the news when I was in my “all things Catholic are stupid” days.
    Archbishop Dolan is of the warrior extroverted class who are the aggressive defenders of what they believe. They are externally driven in the sense that they are very externally expressive and defensive of their belief system and those within their belief system. They are seen as the heroes who have the “courage” to speak out against evil and speak for what is “truth”.
    I must end now due to tiredness. Digby and Henry as always your insights and wisdom are priceless.
    Digby, I totally agree with you that if women are more openly present in the church this abuse would never have occurred. The theologians fail to realize that God’s first gift of love to the human male is the woman who the man only recognized correctly after he had some knowledge. Research at the Univ. of WA. by Gottman clearly reveals that one of seven major characteristics of a healthy and lasting heterosexual relationship is the woman’s success in teaching the man empathy. Without women influencing us we struggle in our spiritual development towards knowing the passion of God’s Love and its passionate healing expression.

  • Cindy

    I really appreciate your words. You are not silent and other’s will hear and listen to what you are saying. There are people who do think about the victims of abuse and who do feel their pain as well.
    Keep up the good work. Our church is not perfect, and it’s good to point out where we can do better. We are all of one body, and we must remember that.

  • Mike L

    Some of the things that are at the top of my mind this morning include: Could I get away with going to confession and saying, “Forgive me because I have made grave errors in my judgment.” I suspect that would lead to some serious questions before absolution was given.

    Another is that I have lost a great deal of respect for Benedict, and even more for the bishops below him. But it dawns on me that if he resigns, one of those lower bishops will become pope. Is this what I really want???

  • brettsalkeld

    I pray your anticipation is wrong and that the Pope will say something on Good Friday. I fear, however, that you may be right. Thanks for this reflection.

  • Charles

    I am so very grateful, for the honesty shown here. It is by this thread, and two others, that I remain in the conversation at all. I have a few questions which I am hoping someone could answer…

    1- I see the Church affirms a policy of “transparency” and “cooperation with secular prosecutors.” But I still see news of the Church declining to provide documentation. e.g. In a suit in progress re Oregon priest Rev. Ronan, news reports say the church claims “foreign sovereign immunity.” e.g. In a Connecticut case about a year ago, the Church appealed to the US Supreme Court to keep documents secret. How does the church explain this apparent contradiction?

    2- New revelations, for example the past few days of NY Times reporting, seem to originate in documents found by plaintiffs in suits, and witnesses discovered by reporters. Why isn’t the Church discovering and announcing these cases itself?

    3- Amidst the coverage, I notice there are groups of victim survivors that have formed, outside the church. Are there groups meeting within the church, where these individuals can gather for mutual support?

    4- While we do hear that numbers of priests have been escorted to the exits under a ‘zero tolerance’ policy, I have yet to hear of Bishops, Archbishops or Cardinals forced to resign for transferring pedophiles from parish to parish. It would seem that in the normal course of events, some of these men will arise to stations where they choose a Pope, or even become Pope. Is action to prevent this being contemplated?

    It seems similar to a pattern we see in human events, that the aftermath of certain crimes becomes even more damaging the the crimes themselves. Rather than remain in a likely endless conversation about whether the Archbishop saw the memo he was copied on, or knew about the dangerous priest, wouldn’t it be simpler to say: Either I knew or I should have known, and as the man in charge I am responsible… ? On the other hand, could a worse response be found than the phrase “petty gossip?”

    Again I thank you for communicating so openly and thoughtfully, at such a difficult time.

  • Chris Sullivan

    Well said Michael.

    You are right – the liturgy is meaningless unless we really do enter into the suffering of all those abused and oppressed and exploited.

    Theology must be done from the viewpoint of the suffering. Otherwise it isn’t from the viewpoint of Christ who is always with the suffering and the poor.

    God Bless

  • James

    I have visited other websites today, but this by far is the most thoughtful discussion I have seen. I, too, was taken aback by Archbishop Dolen’s comment about how the Pope is “being cucified”. But then again, this is to be expected. Excellent insights, and I too will not expect anything from the pulpit this weekend except the usual droll Easter homily.

  • Thank you all for your comments.

  • Ronald King

    It seems that the Pope suffers the same invalidation and criticsm as our original parents suffered within the context of the Church’s interpretation of their choice. Perhaps this will initiate a change in the thinking about “the fall”. As God spoke in chapter 10 of Abbey Road “…And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

  • rcm

    Michael, I cannot begin to tell you how much I appreciate your reflection here. I have been so sick over the latest reaction from the Church. There is NO humility. No true sorrow over what has happened. It is a disgrace and the irony is that those who need to get it, won’t.

  • For those who appreciated the thoughts I expressed here (the silence of the usual suspects suggests that not everyone appreciated them), one thing you might consider is passing the post along to priests that you know who would appreciate it. This morning I passed it along to some priest friends of mine.

  • brettsalkeld

    OK, so the short nature of the piece may not give the full story, but here is an encouraging bit about a bishop in Canada:

  • Brett – Do you know if the idea that “the church is falling apart” is something Mancini said, or is that MSN talking? That would be a remarkable admission.

    I must say, just about every statement by Canadian bishops has been ten times better than those by u.s. bishops or Vatican officials.

    Still, my central concern in this post has more to do with our liturgical practices this weekend and what the anticipated silence says about us as a church. If I hear whining about anti-Catholicism or how the media is “crucifying” Pope Benedict, I will sadly walk out.

  • brettsalkeld

    I don’t know any more than what the article said, and it is not terrifically clear. In any case Mancini seems good so far.
    What makes me sad is that I have liked some stuff Dolan has done in the past, but this stuff about “crucifying Benedict” is just weird. We need to take our lumps here, you know, like that guy we’re supposed to be following. What’s his name again?

  • Dan

    “Mancini said the fallout from the scandals is likely to get worse. He warned the congregation that the consequences of the sins of the past are still unclear.”

    Yes, the consequences are unclear, though we need to prepare, as a church and community, to live with this for a long time.

    And as what I read as discussed here, we need to exhort our leaders, our priests to remind us daily to lead us to service and love for all of our neighbors.

    We know there is anti-Catholic, anti-Christian bias out there. The materialism around us tempts each of us every day, so this is where we need our bishops and priests to truly teach and lead us. Let go of the defensiveness regarding the sexual scandal, the inaction of too many dug us all into this current pit.
    Service and love to others, will over time allow us to move forward and preach Christ’s love.

    “I know there is something wrong with me if I am not happier upon leaving the church after the liturgy than I was upon entering; it means that I have failed to open my heart and receive the divine love offered to me. Love is joy.” Vladimir Vukanovic, professor emeritus Rochester Institute of Technology

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  • digbydolben

    Folks, please read this–and realize that fundamental things have got to change:


  • grega

    As Charles pointed out how come that we rarely have a bishop or cardinal speaking honest words – perhaps resigning if that seem the honest thing to do for having failed catholic children and parents.
    Yes, why isn’t the Church discovering and announcing these cases itself?
    They still do not understand that this is really not all about the actual fact that these priests – humans after all – failed in criminal fashion – they tried to protect the church and ruined it for this generation of parents. It can not help that they are dealing with a severe shortage of quality Priests.
    People are very good in sensing sincerity – Benedict is simply not sincere in terms of his concern for actual human beings and wanting to change the culture – how could he he was instrumental in establishing the culture that led to this in the first place- while he is very sincere in his concerns for the institution – in my view he still after all this does not really get it into his stubborn Bavarian head that his usual suave intellectualized sermons do not cut it.
    Frankly the scandalous often inhumane way our church deals with out of wedlock children of priests is the next big scandal around the corner. Again hush hush for the sake of an institution at the expense of children and mothers.
    As Catholics we do have an interest to get this right since we all pay for these kids with our financial contributions. How come than that quite a few of the Priests involved can not be bothered to be anything other than the worst kind of absent fathers – terrible example they give. The kind of fathers that catholic social teaching would very much find lacking in basic christian virtues.
    Whom are the Monsignors kidding – they have lost the ability to lead – this was long in the making – by the way as Kueng pointed out at the time HV was the first nail in that coffin.
    It is sad – but out of every end there will be a new beginning – Benedicts project to rediscover Europe for his version of intellectualized catholizism is over for good – Benedict will be the worst kind of lame duck – unless he has it in him to usher in serious change aka Johannes XXII – serious change would mean for example priesthood for women and married candidates. It would also mean in my view to hand the power to elect Priests and Bishops back from Rome to local parishes and diocese.

    And yes it would mean for a bishop or cardinal to actually engage regularly with substantial web-based catholic opinion makers like the fine folks that bother to care and run this and other websites and publications.

    I do not hold my breath and wait for Benedict to ever be able to go beyond the hollow praise for women that he,JPII and other have offered us so ‘eloquently’ for decades now in order to justify why women are just not cut out to lead as Priests – ridiculous mental constructs really in my view considering that women seem to have been found quite good enough for the son of god himself to convey the most essential truth of our religion.
    As the abuse scandal showed us – the emperor indeed has no cloth – it is about time to call it what it is.
    They tried so hard to preserve an illusion that really never existed ever in the first place.

    By the way in my view in terms of impact factor in reality a Sister Joan D. Chittister can match any cardinal – and yes that reality does have real life consequences.

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